An exchange between dj and myself concerning the series of 12 blues paperbacks published by Studio Vista between 1970-71 reminded me of one which failed to get published. For dj and anyone else interested here's the sorry tale as told in Juke Blues 25, Spring 1992 (p.29)
FAMOUS DESK DRAWER MANUSCRIPTS
by Tony Russell
A Continuing Series
Laughing To Keep From Crying
by Frank Boom
In 1971-73 I was working as a house editor for November Books, a small London book packaging house that was producing the Blues Paperbacks series, under the general editorship of Paul Oliver, for the English publishers Studio Vista. After two batches of four titles had appeared, a third quartet was planned which would include David Evans's Tommy Johnson and Big Road Blues, Bob Groom's The Blues Revival and a book called Laughing To Keep From Crying.
Tommy Johnson and The Blues Revival duly came out, while Big Road Blues eventually reached publication much later, much larger and under another imprint. Laughing To Keep From Crying took a different course.
Paul Oliver was sent this manuscript by Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch blues scholar who supervised blues and jazz reissue programmes in the '50s and '60s for Dutch Fontana and Riverside. I believe Rookmaaker had the MS from the author himself. He was a Dutchman too, and his name was Frank Boom. And he wrote his book this is the remarkable part of the story during World War II: indeed, during the German occupation of Holland. Which makes Laughing To Keep From Crying by a long way the first book length study of the blues.
Doubtless there was a band of jazz and blues aficionados in prewar Holland as there was in France and Britain. Certainly there were collectors, for Boom's chief source material was a substantial cache of American blues 78s, and the core of his MS was a mass of extracts from them, from which he drew various conclusions about the content and structural development of the blues and other matters. But since he almost never named the artists whose work he was quoting, and generally cited only one or two stanzas at a time, it wasn't easy to identify those records. One that could be quickly traced, thanks to its unique lyrics, was the Texas singer Hattie Burleson's 'Sadie's Servant Room Blues' on Brunswick even now a considerable rarity, and an extraordinary thing to find in wartime Holland.
Before this discussion of blues lyrics Boom's MS treated such matters as the relationship between blues and other forms of African derived satirical song: for example, certain Caribbean idioms. Here his sources were literary folksong collections and other folkloric works and the MS had many reference numbers presumably keyed to notes identifying those sources. Unfortunately, the notes themselves were missing.
And so was part of the main text. The MS broke off at a point where further discussion was evidently on the way, though one could only guess its content or extent. According to Rookmaaker, this second stage of the book would have involved the collaboration of a man called Poustochkine, also Dutch. The title page of the MS may have named him as co author, and it's even possible that he had contributed in some degree to the part we had.
Despite its incompleteness, November Books decided the MS was worth publishing. But there was much to do: its English (Boom either wrote in English or had his MS translated) was comprehensible but unidiomatic, and I concluded that the entire text would need to be rewritten. I also intended to identify the lyrics and try to trace some of the lost literary references.
But there was one more stone in our passway, and it proved immovable. Both Boom and Poustochkine were dead, and Boom's parents, contacted by Rookmaaker, decided that they could not consent to having their son's work published, despite its intrinsic value and the respect it would lend to his name. I don't think it was because they disapproved of the nature of his studies; I believe they simply wanted to avoid grievous reminders of a son who had died young. As Paul Oliver remembers it, the family finally requested the return of the MS, saying that it was a chapter they wished to see closed.
November Books must have learned about this decision at an awkwardly late stage, because when Tommy Johnson and The Blues Revival were published they earned on their jackets advance notice of Laughing To Keep From Crying (credited to Boom alone). So did the subsequent titles Crying For The Carolines, by Bruce Bastin, and Paul Garon's The Devil's Son In Law. Thanks to these premature advertisements, both Laughing To Keep From Crying and the other unpublished title, Big Road Blues, occasionally turned up in later years as phantom entries in blues bibliographies.
At the point when Laughing To Keep From Crying was shelved, my work in progress amounted to a partial 'translation' of the MS perhaps a chapter or two of the (I think) four or five and probably some identifications of the cited lyrics. I doubt that this material would have been sent to Boom's family, but it appears to have been lost, possibly when November Books went out of business not long afterwards. There were also some photographs I remember one of Boom himself and one of the house where he lived in the '40s and wrote the manuscript but I assume these went back to Holland.
My memory of the book's contents is vague, but I preserve the impression that although much of it was inevitably primitive, since Boom knew virtually nothing about the records and artists he was listening to, some of his guesses about the music were good, in that they would be confirmed or reinforced by later research, and others were, as you might say, wrong in interesting and suggestive ways. His attention to lyric content predated Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning, though it was less sophisticated and informed, and his comparative study of blues and other Afro American forms pointed a route that wouldn't be followed for many years.
Still, this is academic, because it looks as if the MS is irretrievable. Rookmaaker died not long after all this, and very likely Boom's parents are dead also. Unless by some near miracle a copy of the MS should turn up again, this is a book we shall never read.
Tony Russell is Editor of Jazz fm magazine and is guest writer this issue.